The Man Behind the Whistle

By David Wright


Photo From: Andrew Bash

Most students know him as the namesake of the Cedarville cafeteria, the man with a signature whistle who keeps an ever-watchful eye on Chuck’s. Chuck McKinney is a Cedarville icon, but few know anything about him beyond his presence pacing the cafeteria.

Though Chuck has been rumored to have attended Cedarville University, he actually graduated from Mount Vernon University in 1977. He received a degree in church music and a minor in youth ministry.

Because of his musical background, Chuck said he used to be regularly involved with chapel. He sang for chapel often, he said, but has refrained in the past few years.

“Once you reach the age of 60, some of the talents you used to have are less than what they were,” Chuck said. “So I can put that on another shelf, from another life.”

Chuck’s love for music may be one of the reasons why he is constantly whistling. He said he has only started whistling within the past three or four years.

“I don’t really know why,” Chuck said, “I guess it’s my nerves. A lot of times I’ll whistle whatever I was listening to on the radio when I came in in the morning.”

When Chuck started college, he said he didn’t have music or food in his career plans; he aspired to become a dentist. This dream didn’t quite meet his expectations, he said, when he entered his first college math class. The professor he had was terrible, he said, and although he had liked math in high school, the professor really turned him off to that field of study.

Chuck then decided to pursue education, but he said he didn’t feel called to that occupation either. At that point, Chuck started studying church music, where he ended up staying.

After completing a two-year associates degree at Mount Vernon, Chuck said he was drafted in 1971 and spent 16 months behind the Berlin Wall. He said he does not have pleasant memories from his experience in Germany. He said it “was not one [he’d] like to repeat.”

After completing his service, Chuck returned to Mount Vernon to finish his degree. Besides playing varsity basketball for the university, Chuck said he became a student manager for the cafeteria. Because of that, he said, he formed a great relationship with the owner of Pioneer Food Company, a relationship that allowed Chuck to secure his current job after college.

While Chuck said he never imagined himself in his current job, he said, “It’s kind of funny, but I’ve pretty much worked in food all my life. My first job I worked at a Burger Chef which is like a McDonald’s, from that I went to an Alber’s grocery store as a carry-out boy, then college.”

Chuck’s first year as the manager of the Cedarville cafeteria was 1980. At this time, Chuck said the cafeteria was in Tyler. The gym was right next to the cafeteria, so the students could watch basketball practice as they ate dinner. It was just called “the cafeteria.”

He said the story of how the cafeteria got named Chuck’s started with aprons. Around 1990, Chuck said he used to employ around 400 students. So he ordered a large amount of aprons from a company, and they informed him that he could place a free embroidery on each one. So instead of telling them to write, “The Cafeteria” he just told them “Chuck’s.” It just caught on after that, he said, and the tradition lives on to this day.

Chuck begins his day at 5 a.m. He arrives at Cedarville about 7 and said he begins the day by walking around the cafeteria chatting and joking with the students eating breakfast and with his employees.

One of the first things Chuck does, he said, is address the comment cards. He said he looks at every single one and takes them into consideration.

Chuck said a huge part of his job is public relations. He takes the time to converse with the occasional student or to handle any confrontation in the cafeteria, he said. Chuck must also help keep his staff together and functional. He takes occasional walks around the kitchen area to make sure everything is working the way it should be, he said, and that employees are doing their jobs.

Chuck said he eats meals with his employees. He small talks, jokes, and also talks business with them.


Photo From: Andrew Bash

But sometimes a slight issue will arise between students and employees that Chuck will deal with, he said. For instance, Chuck had to mediate in a situation where employees had gotten a bit out of line and were messing around a bit too much.

“I like to have a good time” Chuck said, “but the focus has to be on the job.”

Chuck said he keeps in mind what he taught his children when he trains new employees.

“When I raised my children, when I train my assistants, my favorite thing to share with them is people will give you exactly what you’re willing to except. No more. No less,” Chuck said. “If you let your kids get away with murder, they’re going to get away with it. If you hold them to the line, they’ll know where the line is. Same thing with employees; if you don’t show them that it matters to you, it’s not going to matter to them.”

As a manager, Chuck said that he has had the “good fortune in the course of 30 years to develop a strong base of employees that are good at what they do, so they don’t a lot of overseeing all the time – especially my assistants. I expect loyalty from my employees, but I’m very loyal back to them. I treat them fairly.”

Since Chuck does take his job seriously and the jobs of his employees, he may sometimes come off a bit harsh. But Patti Beam, Chuck’s personal assistant, said that is far from the truth.

“Chuck is a neat guy,” Beam said. “He wants people to think he doesn’t have a heart but he does. He absolutely does. He does a lot of things that people don’t know about.”

Chuck, along with Beam, said his job has many facets.

“I have three employers,” Chuck said. “I work doing my best to keep students happy, I work doing my best to keep the college administration happy, and the company I work for expects me to keep both happy while making a profit. And that is a challenge, especially with the food demand increases.”

Chuck said he used to be almost completely in charge of the menu selection, but over the years he has given some of this over to his chef Jerry, although Chuck does have the final authority on what meals will be provided. Chuck said “he has a better feel and touch” for the food selection job.

Chuck’s favorite meal at Chuck’s was a “big vat of soup, beans, ham, and cornbread.” However, Chuck said this course was not very well received by students and is no longer served.

Chuck is provided with a SGA Culinary committee that helps him to determine what foods are most popular and what are not. He said he also keeps very good “production records” so he knows how much of certain courses students eat.

“The key is to provide a good quality product, and still make a profit,” Chuck said. “There’s a balance. You have to be somewhat flexible and adjust to your clientele.”

Sometimes the clientele do the unexpected, Chuck said. One such event happened when the cafeteria was still in Tyler years ago. During a midnight breakfast near the holiday season, Chuck said he dressed up as Santa Claus and walked through the cafeteria “pitching candy canes” at the students. At that point, students began throwing things back at him, and soon the entire cafeteria broke out in a food fight. With a smile, Chuck said he didn’t plan on doing that again any time soon, “not after that experience.”

Though Chuck said he has enjoyed his time working at Cedarville, he feels like the time may be coming for him to step down.

“It really makes you feel old when someone walks up and says ‘you fed me thirty years go or twenty years ago, and I’m taking my son back to look at the college.’”

Chuck said that he is 60 now and will probably retire from his position in one or two years.

“I’m sure they’ll find somebody that’s more up to date and that can do the job with greater ease and more professionalism and can relate better.”

After retiring, Chuck said he doesn’t think he’ll be back at Cedarville as much, because he doesn’t want to interfere with whoever is in charge. However, he said he has told the company that he’ll work to help get the next manager acclimated to his job and work as a resource person in case people had questions.

“It’ll do fine [without me]… the company that I work for will guarantee that. They’re very caring people.”

Chuck said he will miss working at Cedarville.

“Oh yeah, I put in ten to twelve hours a day, five to five and a half days a week, so that’s a pretty big part of my life,” Chuck said. “My wife’s scared to death that I’ll be bored. But I keep telling her I’ll find enough to do… so we’ll see.”

Chuck said retiring will give him some free time to enjoy pastimes like golf and fishing, traveling and spending more time with friends and family.

In the meantime, however, Chuck said he hopes to continue faithfully serving Cedarville students. He said he also hopes they will take his advice for their lives.

Chuck said he understands what it is like to get carried away with dreams for the future and career plans.

“Plan for tomorrow. Live for today,” Chuck advised. “Tomorrow’s always going to be there, but you have to take care of today’s responsibilities — and also enjoyments. Enjoy being young — I did. Don’t take yourself too seriously. If you take yourself or your job or your position too seriously, you’ve lost the war already. … I tell my assistants oftentimes, ‘10,000 years from right now, what will that matter?’ Worry about the things that will matter. Worry about the things that you can control, and the things you can’t control, do the best you can.’”

The students are a major part of why Chuck loves his job so much, he said. He will miss them when he leaves.

“I’m very fortunate. The students at Cedarville are phenomenal. I’m spoiled.” Chuck said with a smile, “Best bunch of kids in the world. Like I said, I’ve traveled for the company and supervised other Christian schools — I’ll take this bunch any day.”

Random Facts about Chuck and Chuck’s

  • Chuck lives about 9 miles off campus on a farm where he has 13 acres. He grows corn and soybeans and had four meat cows this past year.

  • Chuck is married and has three children: two sons and one daughter. All three children attended Cedarville at one time or another.

  • One of Chuck’s sons is a paratrooper in the military.

  • Chuck is a huge Buckeye fan and is loyal to Cincinnati in the NFL.

  • Chuck and his wife lead a small group where they and seven other couples meet every Sunday night and discuss different books.

  • The Cedarville staff is also seriously considering turning the Hive into a Chick-fil-A. If this were to occur, transfer meals would go away, but the amount of “Chuck’s bucks” that students had would likely increase.

  • Students ate 1,000 pounds of meat at Chucksgiving.

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